Jan. 28, 2003
by Theresa Ripp
The history of baseball is oft-recited, handed down as a keepsake from one generation to the next. Millions of boys dream of being a part of this history as men, and one man who is making his dreams come true is John Otness, a junior infielder for the University of Washington baseball team.
"Growing up, I used to watch games at Washington and I knew that I wanted to be a Husky," Otness says. "I have always dreamed about being a Husky."
Born in Tacoma, Wash., Otness began playing baseball at the age of five. His gradual appreciation of the game grew with time, as did the memories Otness and his friends began to make on and off the field.
"I met my favorite baseball player, Ken Griffey, Jr. at a baseball card show in 1989," Otness says. "I will always remember that he told me, 'Don't worry. Be happy.'"
Otness took Griffey's advice to heart, and was always happy during his summers playing for the Tacoma Senators under coach Mike Naughton, who was instrumental in defining Otness' passion for baseball.
"Coach really brought out a love for the game," Otness says. "He made me realize how great it is and how much it relates to life.
A graduate of Wilson High School, Otness earned four varsity letters under coach Lonnie Slater, playing shortstop, third base and pitcher, becoming only the fourth Wilson player ever to earn a letter as a freshman. During his junior year, Otness decided to add football to his resume, serving as a quarterback for Wilson. An injury, however, brought Otness' love for baseball into full focus.
"I landed on my right wrist, dislocating it and tearing ligaments," he says. "I went to Harborview the following Monday to see a specialist and he told me that with an injury of this magnitude, I would never throw again."
Otness retreated with his parents to the hospital cafeteria, where he cried for two hours, attempting to grasp the concept of a future without baseball. By the time he was finished, Otness had made his own diagnosis.
"I set up another surgery later that day," he says, "and I never cried again. I had surgery on Friday the 13th and five pins were put in my arm to reattach the ligaments."
Refusing to give up on his dream, Otness was placed in a full-arm cast until Christmas, and a short-arm cast until the beginning of March. Once the cast was removed in the spring, Otness endured another month of rehabilition to rebuild strength in muscles which had withered in the cast from a lack of use.
The rehab was hard, but the payoff was big. In April of his junior year -- barely six months since doctors had told him he would never play again -- Otness stepped up to the plate.
"I got a hit during my first at-bat back," he says. "It was a huge weight off my shoulders. I was 1-for-8 during the season, and I didn't throw hard until later that summer, but I was back."
The following year, as a senior and team captain, Otness was named the Narrows League MVP, all-area, all-state and Tacoma News Tribune player of the year, helping lead Wilson to the Narrows League championship and, later, to the state playoffs.
A scholarship offer from Washington followed, fulfilling a dream first imagined between the dusty white lines of a Tacoma playground diamond. Last season, Otness made the most of his dream, establishing himself as a critical component of the Husky baseball team. With Washington facing elimination against Rice at the NCAA Regional, Otness reached base on a two-strike hit-by-pitch with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, one batter before Jay Garthwaite's game-winning, three-run homer.
"To see Jay hit that three-run home run, at Rice, in front of their fans -- there hasn't been a moment bigger than that," he says. "I have never heard so many fans go from being so loud, to being so quiet at one swing of the bat. I remember every pitch -- looking up at the stands and realizing where I am, and how lucky I am. As a baseball player, that is a moment you always dream of."
This season, Otness is focused on the present, on everything he can to help the Huskies win, and surpass the success of last season's Regional run.
"I've seen a lot of people get wrapped up in playing Major League baseball," Otness says. "I am here for the Huskies now and I will be here for the Huskies tomorrow. My goal is to focus on the team and the tasks at hand."
Under the rim of his baseball cap is a man who shares America's love of baseball, but has been fortunate enough to be able to describe firsthand a moment millions of boys only dream about.
"The feeling of a hot summer night, playing under the lights, the smells surrounding the field, the fans in the stands, the players with no names across their backs, and the player who hits a stand-up double in the gap to drive in the tying run," he says.
Otness can't leave out the game-tying double at the end. He understands a fundamental truth about the history of the game -- the best baseball stories are the ones with a happy ending.